The Blair Witch Project
|The Blair Witch Project|
Theatrical release poster
|Music by||Antonio Cora|
|Distributed by||Artisan Entertainment|
|Box office||$248.6 million|
The Blair Witch Project is a 1999 American psychological horror film written, directed and edited by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez. The film tells the fictional story of three student filmmakers (Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard) who hike in the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland in 1994 to film a documentary about a local legend known as the Blair Witch. The three disappear, but their video and sound equipment (along with most of the footage they shot) is discovered a year later; the "recovered footage" is the film the viewer is watching.
Myrick and Sánchez conceived the idea of a fictional legend of the Blair Witch in 1993. They developed a 35-page screenplay which left plenty of room for dialogue improvisation since it was an outline of the event. A casting call advertisement in Backstage magazine was put up by the directors and Donahue, Williams, and Leonard were cast. Principal photography began in October 1997 and took place for eight days in Maryland. About 19 hours of footage was shot and was edited down to 90 minutes.
The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 1999, during which promoted a marketing campaign that listed the actors as either "missing" or "deceased". The film's distribution rights were bought by Artisan Entertainment for US$1.1 million. The film had its United States release on July 14, 1999, and later expanded to a wider release starting on July 30. While it received unexpected acclaim from critics, the film's audience reception was polarized. The film became a resounding box-office success, grossing over $248 million worldwide against an estimated budget of $60,000 making it one of the most successful independent films of all time. The DVD was released on October 26, 1999 by Artisan, and the Blu-ray edition was released on October 5, 2010 by Lionsgate.
- 1 Plot
- 2 Production
- 3 Marketing
- 4 Release
- 5 Impact and legacy
- 6 Sequels
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 External links
In October 1994, film students Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard set out to produce a documentary about the fabled Blair Witch. They travel to Burkittsville, Maryland and interview residents about the legend. Locals tell them of Rustin Parr, a hermit who lived in the woods and kidnapped eight children in the 1940s.
On the second day, the students explore the woods in north Burkittsville to research the legend. Along the way, they meet two fishermen, one of whom warns them that the woods are haunted. He also tells them of a young girl named Robin Weaver who went missing in 1888. When she returned three days later, she talked about "an old woman whose feet never touched the ground." However, his companion is skeptical of the story. The students then hike to Coffin Rock, where five men were found ritualistically murdered in the 19th century, their bodies later disappearing. The group then camps for the night.
On the third day, they move deeper into the woods despite being uncertain of their exact location. They eventually locate what appears to be an old cemetery with seven small cairns. They set up camp nearby and then return to the cemetery after dark. Later that night, they hear the sound of twigs snapping from all directions but assume the noises are from animals or locals. On the fourth day, they attempt to hike back to the car, but are unable to find it before dark. Much to their frustrations, they set camp. That night, they again hear twigs snapping but fail to find the source of the noises.
On the fifth day, they find that three cairns have been built around their tent during the night, which unnerves them. As they continue, Heather realizes her map is missing, and Mike later reveals he kicked it into a creek the previous day out of frustration, which prompts Heather and Josh to attack him in a rage. They realize they are now lost and decide simply to head south. They eventually reach a section where they discover a multitude of humanoid stick figures suspended from trees, which further unsettles them. That night, they hear sounds again, but this time includes the sounds of children laughing among other strange noises. When an unknown force shakes the tent, they flee in a panic and hide in the woods until dawn.
Upon returning to their tent, they find that their possessions have been rifled through, and Josh's equipment is covered with a translucent slime. As they continue, they begin to show signs of mentally giving up, and it is made worse when they come across a log on a river identical to one they crossed earlier. They realize they have walked in a circle, despite having traveled south all day, and once again make camp, completely demoralized at having wasted an entire day. Josh suffers a mental breakdown while holding the camera, taunting Heather for their circumstances and her constant recording of the events.
On the seventh day at morning, Heather and Mike awaken to find that Josh has disappeared. After trying in vain to find him, they slowly move on. That night, they hear Josh's agonized screams in the darkness but are unable to locate him. Mike and Heather theorize that Josh's screams are a fabrication by the witch in order to draw them out of their tent.
On the eight day in the woods, Heather discovers a bundle of sticks tied with a piece of fabric from Josh's shirt outside her tent. As she searches through it, she finds blood-soaked scraps of Josh's shirt as well as teeth, hair, and what appears to be a piece of Josh's tongue. Although distraught by the discovery, she chooses not to tell Mike. That night, Heather records herself apologizing to her family, as well as to the families of Mike and Josh, taking full responsibility for their current predicament. She then breaks down and hyperventilates, realizing that something terrible is hunting them, and will ultimately take them.
Afterward, they again hear Josh's agonized cries for help and follow them to a derelict, abandoned house containing runic symbols and children's bloody hand-prints on the walls. Mike races upstairs in an attempt to find Josh while Heather follows. Both are still filming all their actions. Mike then says he hears Josh in the basement. He runs downstairs while a hysterical Heather struggles to keep up. Upon reaching the basement, something attacks Mike and causes him to drop the camera and go silent. Heather enters the basement screaming, and her camera captures Mike facing a corner. Something then attacks Heather, causing her to drop her camera and go silent as well. The footage continues for another moment then ends.
Development of The Blair Witch Project began in 1993. Myrick and Sánchez came across the idea for the film after realizing that they found documentaries on paranormal phenomena scarier than traditional horror films. The two decided to create a film that combined the styles of both. The script began with a 35-page outline, with the dialogue to be improvised. Accordingly, the directors advertised in Backstage magazine for actors with strong improvisational abilities. In developing the mythology behind the film, the creators used many inspirations. Several character names are near-anagrams; Elly Kedward (The Blair Witch) is Edward Kelley, a 16th-century mystic. Rustin Parr, the fictional 1940s child-murderer, began as an anagram for Rasputin. In talks with investors, they presented an eight-minute documentary along with newspapers and news footage.
Cinematic and literary allusions
In the film, the Blair Witch is, according to legend, the ghost of Elly Kedward, a woman banished from the Blair Township (latter-day Burkittsville) for witchcraft in 1785. The directors incorporated that part of the legend, along with allusions to the Salem witch trials and The Crucible, to play on the themes of injustice done on those who were called witches. They were influenced by The Shining, Alien, The Omen and Benjamin Christensen's 1922 silent documentary Häxan, after which the producers named their production company, Haxan Films. Jaws was an influence as well, presumably because the witch was hidden from the viewer for the entirety of the film, forcing suspense from the unknown.
According to Heather Donahue, auditions for the film were held at Musical Theater Works in New York City, and ads were placed in the weekly Backstage for an open audition. The advertisement noted a "completely improvised feature film" shot in a "wooded location". Donahue described the audition as Myrick and Sánchez posing her the question: "You've served seven years of a nine year sentence. Why should we let you out on parole?" to which Donahue was required to improvise a response.
Joshua Leonard, also in response to audition calls through Backstage, claimed he was cast in the film due to his knowledge of how to run a camera, as there was not an omniscient camera filming the scenes.
Principal photography for the film began in October 1997 and lasted eight days. Most of the film was shot in Seneca Creek State Park in Montgomery County, Maryland, although a few scenes were filmed in the real town of Burkittsville. Some of the townspeople interviewed in the film were not actors, and some were planted actors, unknown to the main cast. The final scenes were filmed at the historic Griggs House in Granite, Maryland. Donahue had never operated a camera before and spent two days in a "crash course". Donahue said she modeled her character after a director she had once worked with, citing the character's "self-assuredness" when everything went as planned, and confusion during crisis.
During filming, the actors were given clues as to their next location through messages given in milk crates found with Global Positioning Satellite systems. They were given individual instructions that they would use to help improvise the action of the day. Teeth were obtained from a Maryland dentist for use as human remains in the film. Influenced by producer Gregg Hale's memories of his military training, in which "enemy soldiers" would hunt a trainee through wild terrain for three days, the directors moved the characters a long way during the day, harassing them by night and depriving them of food.
It was initially planned to have the Blair Witch show up in the film. During a scene where the characters run out of their tent, a cameraman was supposed to pan to the left to reveal a woman in a white gown, but the cameraman forgot to pan. The scene was not reshot.
Almost 19 hours of usable footage was recorded which had to be edited down to 90 minutes. The editing process took more than eight months. Originally, it was hoped that the film would make it on to cable television, and the filmmakers did not anticipate wide release. The initial investment was reportedly estimated to be about $35,000. Artisan Entertainment acquired the film for $1.1 million. The actors signed a "small" agreement to receive some of the profits from the film's release.
A list of production budget figures have circulated over the years, appearing as low as $20,000. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Sánchez revealed that when principal photography first wrapped, approximately $20,000 to $25,000 had been spent. Other figures list a final budget ranging between $500,000 and $750,000. In September 2016, The Blair Witch Project was officially budgeted at $60,000.
The Blair Witch Project is thought to be the first widely released film marketed primarily by internet. The film's official website featured faux police reports and "newsreel-style" interviews. These augmented the film's found-footage device to spark debates across the internet over whether the film was a real-life documentary or a work of fiction. During screenings, the filmmakers made advertising efforts to promulgate the events in the film as factual, including the distribution of flyers at festivals such as the Sundance Film Festival, asking viewers to come forward with any information about the "missing" students. The campaign tactic was that viewers were being told, through missing persons posters, that the characters were missing while researching in the woods for the mythical Blair Witch. The IMDb page also listed the actors as "missing, presumed dead" in the first year of the film's availability. The film's website contains materials of actors posing as police and investigators giving testimony about their casework, and shared childhood photos of the actors to add a sense of realism.
The backstory for the film is a legend fabricated by Sánchez and Myrick which is detailed in The Curse of the Blair Witch, a mockumentary broadcast on the SciFi Channel in 1999 prior to the release of The Blair Witch Project. Sánchez and Myrick also maintain a website which adds further details to the legend.
The legend describes the killings and disappearances of some of the residents of Blair, Maryland (a fictitious town on the site of Burkittsville, Maryland) from the 18th to 20th centuries. Residents blamed these occurrences on the ghost of Elly Kedward, a Blair resident accused of practicing witchcraft in 1785 and sentenced to death by exposure. The Curse of the Blair Witch presents the legend as real, complete with manufactured newspaper articles, newsreels, television news reports, and staged interviews.
The Blair Witch Project was premiered at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival and had a limited release on July 14, before going wide on July 30, 1999 after months of publicity, including a campaign by the studio to use the internet and suggest that the film was "a record of real events". The distribution strategy for the film was created and implemented by Artisan studio executive Steven Rothenberg. The film earned $1,512,054 million on its limited release opening weekend, and $29,207,381 over its wide opening weekend. By the end of its theatrical run, the film grossed $248,639,099 worldwide against a production budget of $60,000 earning the reputation of becoming a sleeper hit. The film was the tenth highest-grossing film in the United States in 1999.
Because the filming was done by the actors using hand-held cameras, much of the footage is shaky, especially the final sequence in which a character is running down a set of stairs with the camera. Some audience members experienced motion sickness and even vomited as a result.
The Blair Witch Project received positive reviews from critics, although audience reception was polarized and divided. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an approval rating of 86%, based on 155 reviews, with an average rating of 7.7/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Full of creepy campfire scares, mock-doc The Blair Witch Project keeps audiences in the dark about its titular villain -- thus proving that imagination can be as scary as anything onscreen". On Metacritic, the film holds a normalized score 81 out of 100 based on 33 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".
The film's "found footage" format received near-universal praise by critics and, though not the first in the found footage device, has been declared a milestone in film history due to its critical and box office success. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times gave the film a total of 4 stars, and called it "an extraordinarily effective horror film". Peter Travers of Rolling Stone called it "a groundbreaker in fright that reinvents scary for the new millennium". Todd McCarthy of Variety said, "An intensely imaginative piece of conceptual filmmaking that also delivers the goods as a dread-drenched horror movie, The Blair Witch Project puts a clever modern twist on the universal fear of the dark and things that go bump in the night". Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly gave a grade of 'B', and said: "As a horror picture, [The Blair Witch Project] may not be much more than a cheeky game, a novelty with the cool, blurry look of an avant-garde artifact. But as a manifestation of multimedia synergy, it's pretty spooky".
|"At a time when digital techniques can show us almost anything, The Blair Witch Project is a reminder that what really scares us is the stuff we can't see. The noise in the dark is almost always scarier than what makes the noise in the dark."|
|—Roger Ebert, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times|
Lloyd Rose of The Washington Post said that the film is "scarier than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Scarier than the shower scene in Psycho the first time you see it. Scarier than the final twist in Carrie and the shark attacks in Jaws." Ed Gonzalez of Slant Magazine gave 3 stars out of 4, and said that the film "is most remarkable in its evocation of myths refusing comprehension." Keith Phipps of The A.V. Club said, "Like the original version of The Haunting and Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock, Sanchez and Myrick's film knows that what's not seen frightens more easily that what is, and that the imagination's thoughts of what might have happened generally horrify on a deeper level than knowing what did."
Many critics were less taken with the film. Andrew Sarris of The Observer said, "Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez's The Blair Witch Project represents the ultimate triumph of the Sundance scam: Make a heartless home movie, get enough critics to blurb in near unison 'scary,' and watch the suckers flock to be fleeced. This fictional documentary within a pseudo-documentary form may be the most overrated, under-financed piece of film to come down the pike in a long time". A critic from The Christian Science Monitor said, "The concept is clever, suggesting a new way to build horror-movie suspense without much on- camera gore. [The Blair Witch Project] would be better as a 30-minute short, though, since its shaky camera work and fuzzy images get monotonous after a while, and there's not much room for character development within the very limited plot". R. L. Schaffer of IGN gave the film 2/10, and described it as "boring – really boring", and "a Z-grade, low-rent horror outing with no real scares into a genuine big-budget spectacle".
The Blair Witch Project was released on DVD on October 26, 1999 by Artisan. It contains a number of special features, including documentary Curse of the Blair Witch featurette, a 5-minute newly discovered footage, director and producer commentary, production notes, cast and crew biographies, trailers, interactive menus and subtitles. The audio commentary presents directors Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez, and producers Rob Cowie, Mike Monello and Gregg Hale discussing the film's production, from development to principal photography. The Curse of the Blair Witch feature provides an in-depth look inside the creation of the film. Other featurettes of the DVD include access to the film's official website, two teaser trailers, theatrical trailer, a trailer for the DVD release of The Stand, a map, and excerpts from the film's book and comic book tie-ins.
The Blair Witch Project was nominated for, and won, the following awards.
|Global Film Critics Award||Best Screenplay||Daniel Myrick||Nominated|
|Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award||Best Film||Won|
|Golden Raspberry Award||Worst Picture||Robin Cowie||Nominated|
|Worst Actress||Heather Donahue||Won|
|Stinkers Bad Movie Awards||Worst Picture||Robin Cowie||Nominated|
|Worst Actress||Heather Donahue||Nominated|
|Worst Screen Debut||Heather, Michael, Josh, the Stick People and the world's longest running batteries||Nominated|
Impact and legacy
Since its release, The Blair Witch Project has often been cited by critics as an influence to an array of subsequent films similarly using the "found footage" concept. These include REC (2007), Cloverfield (2008), Paranormal Activity (2009), The Last Exorcism (2010), Chronicle, Project X, and V/H/S (2012), and The Gallows (2015). However, some critics have also noted the film as being strikingly similar to the 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust, and the 1998 film The Last Broadcast in terms of basic plot premise. Though Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato has acknowledged the similarities of The Blair Witch Project to his film, he criticized the publicity that the film received for being an original production; advertisements for The Blair Witch Project also promoted the idea that the footage is genuine.
Film critic Michael Dodd has argued that the film is an embodiment of horror "modernizing its ability to be all-encompassing in expressing the fears of American society", acknowledging its status as the archetypal modern found footage feature, he noted that "In an age where anyone can film whatever they like, horror needn't be a cinematic expression of what terrifies the cinema-goer, it can simply be the medium through which terrors captured by the average American can be showcased". In 2008, The Blair Witch Project was ranked by Entertainment Weekly as #99 on their list of "100 Best Films from 1983 to 2008". In 2006, the Chicago Film Critics Association ranked it as #12 on their list of "Top 100 Scariest Movies". It was ranked #50 on Filmcritic.com's list of "50 Best Movie Endings of All Time". In 2016, it was ranked by IGN as #21 on their list of "Top 25 Horror Movies of All Time", #16 on Cosmopolitan's "25 Scariest Movies of All Time", and #3 on The Hollywood Reporter's "10 Scariest Movies of All Time".
In popular culture
The Blair Witch Project has been alluded in film and television. The scene where Heather Donahue is speaking directly into the camera was spoofed by Cheri Oteri in Scary Movie (2000), directed by Keenen Ivory Wayans. The same year, it spawned another spoof direct-to-video comedy film entitled The Bogus Witch Project. The 14th episode of the first season of The CW television series Gossip Girl was entitled "The Blair Bitch Project", aired on April 21, 2008.
In September 1999, D.A. Stern compiled The Blair Witch Project: A Dossier. Perpetuating the film's "true story" angle, the dossier consisted of fabricated police reports, pictures, interviews, and newspaper articles presenting the film's premise as fact, as well as further elaboration on the Elly Kedward and Rustin Parr legends (an additional "dossier" was created for Blair Witch 2). Stern wrote the 2000 novel Blair Witch: The Secret Confessions of Rustin Parr and in 2004, revisited the franchise with the novel Blair Witch: Graveyard Shift, featuring all original characters and plot.
A series of eight young adult books entitled The Blair Witch Files were released by Random subsidiary Bantam from 2000 to 2001. The books center on Cade Merill, a fictional cousin of Heather Donahue, who investigates phenomena related to the Blair Witch in attempt to discover what really happened to Heather, Mike, and Josh.
- The Blair Witch Files 1 – The Witch's Daughter
- The Blair Witch Files 2 – The Dark Room
- The Blair Witch Files 3 – The Drowning Ghost
- The Blair Witch Files 4 – Blood Nightmare
- The Blair Witch Files 5 – The Death Card
- The Blair Witch Files 6 – The Prisoner
- The Blair Witch Files 7 – The Night Shifters
- The Blair Witch Files 8 – The Obsession
In August 1999, Oni Press released a one-shot comic promoting the film, simply titled The Blair Witch Project. Written by Jen Van Meter and drawn by Bernie Mireault, Guy Davis, and Tommy Lee Edwards, the comic featured three short stories elaborating on the mythology of the Blair Witch. In mid-2000, the same group worked on a four-issue series called The Blair Witch Chronicles.
In October 2000, coinciding with the release of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, Image Comics released a one-shot called Blair Witch: Dark Testaments, drawn by Charlie Adlard and written by Ian Edginton.
In 2000, Gathering of Developers released a trilogy of computer games based on the film, which greatly expanded on the myths first suggested in the film. The graphics engine and characters were all derived from the producer's earlier game Nocturne. Each game, developed by a different team, focused on different aspects of the Blair Witch mythology: Rustin Parr, Coffin Rock, and Elly Kedward, respectively.
The trilogy received mixed reviews from critics, with most criticism being directed towards the very linear gameplay, clumsy controls and camera angles, and short length. The first volume, Rustin Parr, received the most praise, ranging from moderate to positive, with critics commending its storyline, graphics and atmosphere; some reviewers even claimed that the game was scarier than the film. The following volumes, The Legend of Coffin Rock and The Elly Kedward Tale, were less well-received, with PC Gamer saying that Volume 2's "only saving grace was its cheap price", and calling Volume 3 "amazingly mediocre".
The Woods Movie (2015) is a feature-length documentary exploring the production of The Blair Witch Project. For this documentary, director Russ Gomm interviewed the original film's producer, Gregg Hale, and directors, Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick.
A sequel was released on October 27, 2000 entitled Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. The film was poorly received by most critics. A third installment announced that same year did not materialize.
In January 2015, Eduardo Sánchez revealed that he was still planning Blair Witch 3 and that he considered the film "inevitable", but added that there was nothing to officially announce at that time.
On July 22, 2016, a surprise trailer of Blair Witch, a sequel to the first film directed by Adam Wingard, was released at the San Diego Comic-Con. The film was originally marketed as The Woods so as to be an exclusive surprise announcement for those in attendance at the convention. The film, produced by Lionsgate, is slated for a September 16, 2016 release and stars James Allen McCune as the brother of the original film's Heather Donahue. Blair Witch is a direct sequel to The Blair Witch Project, and does not acknowledge the events of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. However, Wingard has said that although Blair Witch does not reference any of the events that transpired in Book of Shadows, the film does not necessarily discredit the existence of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. In September 2016, screenwriter Simon Barrett explained that in writing the new film he only considered material that was produced with the involvement of the original film's creative team (directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, producer Gregg Hale, and production designer Ben Rock) to be "canon", and that he did not take any material produced without their direct involvement—such as the first sequel Book of Shadows or The Blair Witch Files, a series of young adult novels—into consideration when writing the new sequel.
- List of ghost films
- Found footage (pseudo-documentary)
- Cannibal Holocaust, a 1980 film about a missing documentary film crew who had gone to the Amazon to film cannibal tribes.
- The Last Broadcast, a 1998 film with a similar premise
- The Bogus Witch Project, a direct-to-video parody of the film.
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